In our quest to create the perfect treat for the eye, do we risk alienating the ear?
When Marc Antony asked his friends, Romans, and countrymen to lend him their ears, he was gearing up for a very different message than the obituary he would have written had they lent him their eyes.
As writers and editors, we encounter that difference all the time. Eyes and ears process information differently. Depending which organ you’re using, you’ll expect a different type of product.
As the inimitable Mrs. Zlata Press put it, the ear is dumber than the eye. When you wish to convey information via speech, you will likely use shorter, punchier words. Your sentences will be briefer. You’ll avoid stringing together too many clauses in one dose. Remember: Your listeners have to process the information while the soundwaves carrying it dissipate in the air. No matter how attentively they listen, they can’t go back and re-hear the statement you just made. You have to keep the message at their level so it’s digested the moment they hear it. There are no second chances.
When you wish to convey information via the written word, you’re dealing with a different set of expectations. The same audience, with the same vocabulary level, will enjoy words that might have stymied them in a casual conversation. (That’s why a lot of us know the meaning and usage of many words that we have no idea how to pronounce.)
They will sit through longer sentences, with complex phrasing — including series of items, ideas, or idioms — strung together with various grammatical tools; because as long as you’ve built a paragraph that is vivid and vibrant, that encases its message in music of the verbal sort, you can take your readers along for the ride without losing them halfway through the first phrase.
“The ear is dumber than the eye” means something else, too. Not only can consumers of the written word handle a different type of product, they likely expect one. I’ve spoken to editors who specialize in transcribing shiurim and preparing them for print. In most cases, a lot of work must be done to bridge the gap between the ear and the eye. A shiur or lecture that’s perfectly calibrated to the interests and listening level of its audience — the perfect message and delivery — can look unsophisticated and weak when simply transferred, as is, to the page. More often than not, our “smarter eyes” demand more complex language, phrasing, and delivery when the medium is print rather than speech.
he gap between our eyes and ears creates challenges for every editor, but the challenge gets interesting when dealing with dialogue in a story. Most of us don’t speak with perfect grammar. We use run-on sentences, informal contractions, slang like “wanna” or “gonna.” We dip into a mishmash of languages, serving a smattering of Yiddish patois along with our English or spicing our sentences with the flavor of the beis medrash.
That’s why all our fiction editors pay special attention to dialogue, and why they’ll sometimes actually rub away the polish that’s such an important part of all the other pieces they edit.
When editing a recent serial, I found myself changing “just a moment” to “just a second.” The character was too young, too casual, to say “just a moment.” It’s also why we’ll change instances of “I will do it” to “I’ll do it” and “I am thinking about that” to “I’m thinking.” And it’s why a really skilled writer will have characters interrupting one another with outbursts that don’t directly address the line just spoken. People engaged in heated dialogue aren’t level-headed enough to respond with neat consistency to the last point they heard.
But how far do you go? Often the more accurate dialogue is not only informal, but grammatically incorrect. If you want a yeshivah bochur to sound authentic, do you have him offer to “tell over a story” or do you amend it to “retell”? If you want to capture the conversations of chattering seminary girls, will they talk about “eating by the Cohens” or “eating at the Cohens”? If you want to paint a genuine picture of a man running to the earliest minyan, will he be “running to vasikin” or to “k’vasikin”?
In all these examples, there’s an objective right and wrong. The grammar purists will cross out and correct and reword, and take pride in their defense of Standards. But the gap between our spoken language and written standards can be very wide. In our quest to create the perfect treat for the eye, do we risk alienating the ear?
This fear has been the spark of many a conversation between editors, writers, and proofreaders. It’s the reason we sometimes allow the Yiddish-Aramaic-Hebrew-inflected version of English an occasional appearance. We know that language is constantly changing, adapting, mutating. We suspect that our readership might be well along its way to creating its own dialect of English, with specialized syntax, phraseology, and idioms. But we also know that for the most part, they’re not looking for a flood of yeshivishisms when they open up a magazine. They want a product that feels familiar, relevant, that acknowledges the world of the ear — but one that satisfies and delights the higher expectations of the eye.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 921)
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